Even though they’ve been one of Canada’s top touring acts for a quarter of a century, the thrills and chills of playing front of thousands – even tens of thousands – of adoring fans has not worn off on the members of The Tragically Hip.
In the waning weeks of 2012, the band did two separate three-week stints in the United States, touring in support of their most recent album, Now For Plan A, which was released in October.
Starting with a date at the Western Financial Place in Cranbrook, British Columbia on Jan. 19, The Hip will be traversing their home and native land during the dead of winter playing big time hockey arenas. What could be more Canadian than that?
The 15-show jaunt concludes in grand style with a show at the massive Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14.
Guitarist Paul Langlois said even though the band has performed at venues like the Air Canada Centre, huge soccer stadiums in Europe as an opening act for The Rolling Stones, and in front of masses of people at outdoor shows, such as the one in Bobcaygeon immortalized in a recent DVD release, he and bandmates Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, Gord Sinclair and singer Gordon Downie still get pretty wired before a big show.
“It’s still exciting, no question, and it’s still nerve wracking, and there’s still a big rush of adrenaline right before we hit the stage. It’s quite something. And there might even be more appreciation for it now than there used to be as we roll along and we get older. We appreciate it more and don’t take any of it for granted,” Langlois told Music Express from his home in Kingston, where the band was formed in 1983, and where 3/5 of its members still reside.
[quote]Something happens when people play together. And I think it’s the biggest advantage we have is that we have played together for so long, and we just create unique sound just by playing together.[/quote]“We’ll always be a bit nervous. As the tour moves along the nerves would lessen as the confidence rises. As we sort of get into the second or third week, everyone gets better and more confident. But there’s always that ‘anything could go wrong’ vibe. So there’s those kinds of nerves and then there’s the rush of all those people who seem to be enjoying it, and the challenge we give ourselves to make sure they go home happy.”
With 13 studio albums to their credit, putting together a set list for a tour, such as this month-long Canadian winter venture, proves to be quite a challenge for a veteran band such as The Tragically Hip. There are so many considerations and so many people to keep happy – including themselves.
“I’d say it was a little arduous. It’s not as difficult as writing and recording as a collective. Going out on the road and touring with the songs you’ve just recorded and other songs, I would say, is where the band vibe is at its best. But that’s only my opinion. It’s easiest to get along on the road. We know the songs, and we’re on the road in front of people, so we’re getting lots of good feedback. So the only difficult thing we have on the road, besides the grind of the travel, is deciding what we are going to play,” Langlois explained, adding that on this current tour, fellow guitarist Baker has been charged with putting the set list together on each night.
“Robbie is doing that now and he is doing an excellent job. He tosses it out there in the late afternoon or early evening, and anyone can speak up. It’s a process, and the guy who is doing it needs to do some serious work on it, and bounces it off everyone and tries to reach a compromise with this person or that person. But more often than not, we say it’s great. Most nights on this last tour, we were loving the set list.
“We do like to change it up a bit, so that’s the other challenge. It’s sort of like a big math problem, and one that is not getting any easier with more records and more songs each tour. But we have the intention of always changing it up, and we need to keep doing that or else we will get bored. And certainly the fans who come to see us more than once or twice, we don’t want them to see the same show. We change what songs from the new album we do and what old songs we’re playing. We try to represent I guess what you would call the different ‘periods’ of the band. So, yeah, it’s a challenge, but Robbie has been up to it.”
The Tragically Hip built much of its reputation and acclaim on the back of a solid, tight, energetic live show, populated with good songs, many of which, such as Courage, New Orleans Is Sinking, Little Bones, 50 Mission Cap, Bobcaygeon, Poets, and the latest hit, At Transformation, have become staples on Canadian radio.
Many fans and critics noted that the vibe on Now For Plan A, was very reminiscent of the insistent energy and raw appeal of the band’s earliest albums like Up To Here, Road Apples and Fully Completely. Langlois credits new producer Gavin Brown for recognizing that the live Hip experience needed to be translated into the studio for this record.
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“There is a live sound to it. It was recorded live. We’re all playing at the same time, and Gord [Downie] was singing at the same time. We were recording and keeping everything. We would go back and fix something later if it was needed, but pretty much everything you hear was recorded live off the floor. I think the energy comes through on the record. It really does sound like a band playing. And we’ve had that sound before. So I think some people are saying that it reminds them of older Hip because we certainly used to record that way,” he said, adding that initially, the band was writing and doing demos on their own. But after a prolonged process of nearly three years, decided an outside ear was needed.
Brown has worked with the likes of The Tea Party, Thornley, Billy Talent, Kingston’s Sarah Harmer and former Canadian Idol winner Ryan Malcolm, amongst an impressive resume.
“Gavin came in with a lot of enthusiasm. He has a big personality and he was a lot of fun immediately. I think bringing him in just loosened us all up and we just got back to having fun with the songwriting process,” Langlois said.
Brown wanted to move the band out of the comfort of their home studio, The Bathouse, to Noble Street in Toronto.
“Gavin came out and saw a couple of summer shows we did, and he was like, ’wow, okay you guys should record live.’ And he won me over right away as soon as he said that. And I think he was right. It was the way to go at this time. We were playing so well together, so why wouldn’t you? It just made sense to us, and certainly made sense to me, to record it quickly and not get hung up on much. Really, I think energy is more important than anything in the rock and roll game, which is where we’re at. And it’s pretty hard to get energy from building a track slowly in the studio,” he explained.
[quote]Our basic goal hasn’t changed, and that was to stay together. It was a commitment we made in my parents basement back at the beginning.[/quote]“Something happens when people play together. And I think it’s the biggest advantage we have is that we have played together for so long, and we just create unique sound just by playing together. Gavin came to this realization because this wasn’t the way he was originally going to go. But we knew all the songs backwards and frontwards. We were really all very confident in our parts. So we just started recording it, and it all happened in about 10 days.”
The Tragically Hip is one of the most distinguished and decorated bands in Canadian music history. They have accrued 14 Juno Awards, been inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame (2002), the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame (2005), earned honourary fellowships with the Royal Conservatory of Music (2006) and won a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2008.
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Early in their career, The Tragically Hip had a chance to open for their heroes, Rush, and have also shared the stage with rock royalty in the personages of The Who and The Rolling Stones. The band even performed for Queen Elizabeth during a command performance. The Tragically Hip was the first band to play the Air Canada Centre when it opened in 1999, and also the first act to play the K-Rock Centre in their hometown of Kingston.
So what’s left to do?
“Our basic goal hasn’t changed, and that was to stay together. It was a commitment we made in my parents basement back at the beginning. We know we sound good together, so let’s just stay together. And in order to do that, you’ve got to stay friends and you’ve got to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Why would we break up? We have a great thing going. As long as we can keep us as individuals happy, then we almost can’t lose,” Langlois said.
“We want to keep doing it, and in order to keep doing it, we’ve got to keep writing songs and we’ve got to keep shooting for that perfect song. We still have a lot of music in us. We have the advantage that everyone writes music and continues to do that when we’re not working together.
“As for the big moments, it’s not like it’s this surreal, dreamlike thing where I don’t accept that it’s happened. I totally accept it and love it. But it’s not something I could have predicted, and I try to appreciate it as much as possible, and appreciate how lucky we have been, and even just how long we’ve been going. Fortunately, we’ve all stayed pretty grounded.”
Langlois, Baker and Sinclair all still live in Kingston, while Fay and Downie are in Toronto, but all five have allowed their home studio, the Bathouse to become a focal point for the Kingston music scene, offering rates for up-and-coming local talent, and a chance to record in a first-class facility. Langlois, Sinclair and Baker often pop in as guest artists both onstage and in studio, supporting friends who are part of the vibrant hometown music scene.
Being appreciative of their success, being grounded, but continuing to live the rock and roll dream continues to motivate and drive Langlois, Downie, Sinclair, Fay and Baker on to more and more musical milestones.
Fans can see this top Canadian band, firing on all musical cylinders, as it makes its way across Canada, from the east to west, throughout January and February.
For more information on the band, the new album And Now for Plan A, and its tour, visit thehip.com.